NY commission fields record number of complaints against judges

The New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct released its annual report today, showing more New Yorkers filed complaints against judges last year than in any year since the agency was founded.

The commission received and processed 2,025 complaints in 2010 — 170 more than were filed in 2009, according to its annual report. But although there were more complaints in 2010, there were fewer investigations. The commission launched 225 full-fledged investigations  last year, compared to 257 investigations in 2009.

From those investigations, 15 judges were publicly disciplined, 36 were confidentially cautioned and 14 resigned, the commission reported. There are about 3,500 judges in the state unified court system.

Commission Administrator Robert H. Tembeckjian said the numbers for 2010 were on par with those from the last five years.

Of the 15 judges who were disciplined, one was from Westchester: Ossining Village Justice Raymond R. Barlaam, who was admonished for scheduling trials in traffic cases based solely on the availability of the officers who made the arrest or issued the ticket. The commission said his actions from 2003 to 2008 resulted in long delays in hundreds of cases and forced defendants “to wait years for their day in court.”

Barlaam, a village justice since 1983, had allowed more than 500 traffic cases to languish — some more than five years — so that he could schedule trials when the issuing officer was available. The commission noted that Barlaam acknowledged his actions were wrong, that he has discontinued the practice and now schedules calendar matters in a timely fashion and considers requests for adjournments on a case-by-case basis. Barlaam has since “disposed of virtually all of the approximately 500 cases at issue, by conducting trials, accepting guilty pleas or entertaining motions to dismiss by the prosecutor,” the commission said.

The admonishment was the least severe of three possible sanctions the commission can issue. The most severe is removal from office, followed by censure. The admonishment results in no penalty against Barlaam but serves to advise the public of his actions.

In the commission’s annual report Tembeckjian renewed a call for state legislation to make the commission’s formal disciplinary proceedings open to the public for the first time since 1978.

“It may be unusual for a government agency to invite more scrutiny of its work,” he said in a written statement, “but that has been the Commission’s unwavering position for more than three decades.”

The Report, which details the Commission’s activities in 2010, is available http://www.cjc.ny.gov/

Lippe’s son testifies against him — again — in wife-slay trial

It’s awful to have to testify against your own father when he’s charged with murdering your mother.

Andrew Lippe has had to do it twice.

Lippe, the 16-year-old son of accused killer Werner Lippe, took the stand for the second time this year in Westchester County Court, where the elder Lippe is charged with second-degree murder in the disappearance of his 49-year-old wife, Faith.

Faith Lippe, a nutritionist for Ossining schools, was last seen alive on Oct. 3, 2008. No one has heard from her since. Her husband of 18 years allegedly knocked her unconscious with a piece of wood during an argument Oct. 3, dragged her behind their home on Little Lake Road in Cortlandt and burned her body in a 55-gallon barrel for 24 hours until her remains were nothing but ash.

He told as much to a friend and later to police but recanted his confession, saying he made up the story in a misguided attempt to be left alone. His first trial ended with a hung jury, who voted 7 to 5 for acquittal.

The teenaged Lippe was calm and composed today in front of the jury, as he was in January at his father’s first trial. He testified about the strife in the family’s home because his parents were divorcing. He said that two days after his mother vanished, his father lit a bonfire behind their home, spread new topsoil over the area when the fire went out, and sprinkled the same area with spices when police dogs showed up.

Prosecutors contend Lippe’s actions are evidence that he was trying to cover up all traces of his wife’s remains.

Under cross examination, Andrew Lippe said his mother could be controlling and that his father had problems with his eyesight — a reference to Werner Lippe’s insistence that he last saw his wife leaving the house and getting into a mysterious dark vehicle that he couldn’t describe further.

Also testifying against Lippe today was Meryl Learnihan, the wife of one of the prosecutions star witnesses, James Learnihan, who had worn a police wire that recorded Lippe’s confession. Meryl Learnihan told the jury that Faith Lippe, who she described as a devoted mother, was making “serious plans” for a new life after her divorce. She said Werner Lippe had left a message on their answering machine saying that Faith was missing and that he was felling overwhelmed by the situation.

Werner Lippe, a 68-year-old jewelry designer whose celebrity clients include Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey, has been held without bail at the county jail in Valhalla since his arrest on Oct. 30, 2008. His trial continues next week before county Judge Barbara Zambelli.

Andrew Lippe and his 14-year-old sister, Stephanie, continue to live with Andrew’s longtime tae kwon do instructor and attend school.

Village judge in trouble over traffic tickets

An Ossining village justice faces admonishment by the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct for delaying traffic cases.

Village Justice Raymond R. Barlaam, on the Ossining bench since 1983, failed “to dispose of judicial matters promptly, efficiently and fairly” by scheduling traffic cases solely on the availability of police officers to appear in court between 2003 and 2008, according to a commission “determination” dated March 15.

Click here to read the complete story my my colleague Leslie Korngold.

Or click here to read the details from the Commission on Judicial Conduct

With Lippe mistrial, what’s next?

werner lippeIf you haven’t already heard, the Werner Lippe murder trial ended in a hung jury on Friday. Click here to read the story.

What seemed on the surface to be a slam-dunk case — he confessed three times to killing his wife — turned into an uphill battle for prosecutors, thanks in no small part to defense lawyer Andrew Rubin, considered one of the best (if not the best) in Westchester County. His argument that Lippe was coerced into confessing, and his skills preparing lippe before taking the witness stand, created reasonable doubt in the minds of at least one juror (and from what I heard, several).

I called a few criminal justice experts on Saturday to get their thoughts about what happened and what needs to happen to avoid a second deadlock. To my surprise, they all took time out of their weekends and called me back. Thanks, guys! Click here to read that story.

So now everyone is wondering …. when is Lippe going on trial again? From what I hear, it may not be for several months. Rubin has another trial about to start, plus he and his partners have other clients to defend. Assistant District Attorneys John O’Rourke and Christine O’Connor also have other cases to prosecute. But both sides will meet this Thursday in the Trial Assignment Part court to discuss scheduling. As soon as I know more, you’ll know more.

Jury gets the Lippe case

After more than three weeks of testimony from dozens of witnesses and five (!) hours of closing arguments today, the seven women and five men on the Werner Lippe jury began deliberating if he was guilty of murdering his wife, Faith, and burning her in a backyard barrel behind their Cortlandt home.

Click here to read my stories from the trial.

The jury sent out a note at 6:45 p.m. — a little over an hour into their deliberations — asking the judge for clarification on involuntary statements and about Miranda rights. Defense lawyer Andrew Rubin, in his three-hour closing statement, insisted that Lippe gave an involuntary confession to state police investigators because Lippe asked to speak to his lawyer twice and they kept talking to him. Lippe was given his Miranda warning (“You have the right to remain silent ….”) and asked point-blank if he really wanted a lawyer, to which he replied, “No, no hold on a minute.”

Westchester County Judge Barbara Zambelli called it a night at 7:30 p.m. and sent the jurors to a local hotel for the night. She is known for sequestering juries in murder trials. They will resume deliberations around 9:30 a.m. tomorrow

Lippe takes the stand

werner lippeInteresting day in the Westchester County Courthouse … Cortlandt jeweler Werner Lippe spent all day testifying in his own defense, namely that the confession he gave to police — the one about knocking his wife unconscious, dragging her body into a backyard burn barrel and incinerating her remains — was a great big lie.

Click here to read my update of this morning’s testimony.

Lippe, wearing a navy suit and white mock turtleneck, was calm and confident as he explained — at times in lots and lots of detail — what he was doing when he last saw his wife leave their home (make that mansion, I saw the pictures) and what he said and did with friends and police in the weeks following Faith Lippe’s disappearance.

His attorney, Andrew Rubin, had to keep Lippe in line, telling him several times to answer only his questions and not to go off on tangents. The nearly six hours of questioning ended with Rubin asking, “Did you kill Faith?” and Lippe replying, “No!”

Prosecutors will get their chance at Lippe on Thursday. The judge declared Wednesday a snow day based on the weather forecast and hears her other non-jury cases on Tuesdays.

We’re back from winter break

Completely Legal has returned after a week off, and we have lots of news to share.

The big story today is the U.S. Attorney’s public corruption indictments of three Westchester County political insiders: former Yonkers Councilwoman Sandi Annabi, former Yonkers GOP Chairman Zehy Jereis and lawyer Anthony Mangone. To read the full story, click here.

Tomorrow, in Westchester County Court, pre-trial hearings begin for Manhattan jeweler Werner Lippe, accused of killing his wife, Faith Lippe, whose remains have yet to be found. Lippe, who lived in Cortlandt before his arrest, is charged with second-degree murder.

werner lippeThe hearing may give some insight into what evidence the prosecution wants to introduce at trial, such as forensic evidence and statements that Lippe made to police after he was arrested Oct. 30. Investigators theorize that her body may have been burned shortly after Werner Lippe reported her missing – a ruse, they say, that was intended to throw police off the trail. Police have brought in experts in biochemistry and forensic anthropology to help build a case against Lippe, 67.

Faith Lippe, 49, was a well-liked nutrition consultant for the Ossining school district. The couple had two children – Andrew, 15, and Stephanie, 13.

Photo courtesy of the Westchester County District Attorney’s office

Happiest sentencing ever

Criminal sentencings are usually a somber affair, accompanied by frowns and scowls from defendants and frustrated tears from family members and friends.

Today was a little different.

A young woman named Jessica Bonacci was thrilled — thrilled! — to receive five years’ probation for third-degree robbery, a felony that’s punishable by up to 7 years in state prison. The 22-year-old from Peekskill thanked the judge, pumped her handcuffed fists behind her and beamed a smile back to her mother sitting in the front row, who threw her arms around another woman in sheer joy.

“I know you have the love and support of your family,” state Supreme Court Justice Richard A. Molea said. “Hopefully, this has been a lesson for you.”

Here’s the back story: Bonacci was accused of setting up robbery victims, tag-team style, with an accomplice, according to the Westchester County District Attorney’s office. One would distract the victim, while the other snuck up and attacked the victim, stealing whatever was available — money, cell phones, and so on.

Bonacci was arrested Feb. 27, 2008 when, prosecutors allege, she and the accomplice pulled this scheme at an Ossining shopping center. She used the victim’s company van as a getaway car, but she didn’t get far.

A Westchester grand jury handed Bonacci a 12-count indictment that included felony charges of robbery, grand larceny, criminal possession of stolen property and misdemeanor assault. She got a break from prosecutors and was allowed to plead guilty to the one robbery count if she served probation for five years and paid back the $2,500 she stole, plus court fees.

Bonacci’s legal problems are not over yet. After being released on her own recognizance for the February 2008 robbery, she was arrested for a March 5, 2009 robbery in Peekskill, as was her alleged accomplice, Tony Perez. Both were charged with first-degree robbery for allegedly stealing a wallet out of a man’s pocket and have been in the Westchester County Jail since that arrest.

Bonacci is to appear before Westchester County Judge Susan Capeci on the second felony robbery charge next week. She has yet to take a plea in the second robbery case, but the DA’s office says she’s not expected to serve any prison time.

No wonder she was so happy.